Psych professor Santos wins PopSci award

Humans are not the only ones that make errors while performing cost-benefit analyses. According to Laurie Santos’ research — monkeys make these mistakes, too.

Popular Science Magazine has named Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos one of the “Brilliant Ten” young scientists in the United States for her work as head of Yale’s monkey lab, which she started four years ago. Santos’ research garnered PopSci’s recognition because its conclusions about monkey brain functioning provide insights into human economic behavior, the magazine said.

Laurie Santos, psychology professor and comparative cognition lab researcher, has been named as one of Popular Science’s “10 Brilliant Minds of 2007.”
Charles Francis
Laurie Santos, psychology professor and comparative cognition lab researcher, has been named as one of Popular Science’s “10 Brilliant Minds of 2007.”

The magazine’s award recognized Santos’ approach to research on “theory of mind” in monkeys, which refers to the capacity to recognize mental states — including belief, desire, hope and fear — in oneself and in others, Santos said. Recent research has questioned whether this capacity is unique to humans or is shared by non-human primates.

PopSci said what sets Santos’ studies apart is her focus on the “dumb” aspects of cognition — instinctive responses that are not affected by experience — rather than “smart” cognitive abilities, such as the ability to use tools and recognize patterns. The magazine described Santos’ less conventional approach as “groundbreaking.”

Santos said she thought studying errors with evolutionary roots — mistakes in reasoning that the monkeys made over and over again without improvement — would be more interesting because they would remove experience as a relevant factor.

“They are built-in errors,” she said. “With smart abilities, the monkeys learn in time with experience. With errors, there is no experience that can help them.”

Santos’ colleagues and students said they admire her work and are pleased that she was recognized for the PopSci award.

Psychology professor Paul Bloom said Santos’ studies are important because they have the potential to provide insights into human nature that could not be obtained merely by studying human subjects.

“Laurie’s research is excellent in just about every conceivable way — it is theoretically deep, methodologically precise, and addresses some of the most significant questions in psychology,” Bloom said in an e-mail.

Santos was labeled the “Monkey Economist” by PopSci Magazine because of the economic implications of her findings. According to the magazine, Santos’ research demonstrates that monkeys make many of the same errors as humans.

The results suggest that certain human economic biases have evolutionary roots, which could make it more difficult to alter economic biases through education or by providing more information to consumers, Santos said. She said perhaps the biases should not even be considered errors at all — if they are built in through evolution, they might be useful.

Psychology professor Frank Keil said Santos is at the forefront of the rapidly growing area of comparative cognition.

“Her work bears directly on topics diverse as the roots of intuitive economics, how to interpret cognition in preverbal human infants, and the origins of notions of physical and social causation,” he said in an e-mail.

Brian Edwards ’08, who started working at the monkey lab during the summer after his freshmen year, described Santos as a brilliant researcher who is invested in her students.

“She is interested in what her students do,” Edwards said. “She perceives their ideas and encourages them to turn them into better ideas, guiding them along the way.”

Santos conducts research both in the lab and in a field station on Cayo Santiago, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico. She said she named many of her lab’s monkeys — Auric Goldfinger, NickNack, Jill Masterson and Honey Ryder — after characters from James Bond films because she is a big fan of the movies.

Santos did not apply for the PopSci award, she said — in fact, she had no idea she was being considered until last week, when the magazine notified her that she had won.

Other winners of PopSci’s award worked on a wide range of projects, including the discovery of a novel class of puffy planets, the tracing of a black hole’s fingerprints and the digital protection devised for the FBI’s Web site.

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